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Record Temperatures in Southern Prisons Called Cruel and Unusual Punishment

On the last day of July 2023, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres announced that Earth had just endured the hottest three-week period ever recorded, noting that “for vast parts of North America, Asia, Africa and Europe—it is a cruel summer.”

He didn’t have to tell prisoners spending the summer behind bars across the southern U.S., facing triple-digit temperatures without air conditioning. Sabrina Andrews, whose fiancé is held at Florida’s Hernando Correctional Institution, called the excessive heat “cruel and unusual” punishment that violated Eighth Amendment protections. Most state Department of Corrections (DOC) lockups lack air conditioning inside housing areas, and the 25% of areas with it are reserved for sick, mentally ill, pregnant and geriatric prisoners.

In August 2022, DOC began a long-term pilot at its largest women’s prison, Lowell Correctional Institution, testing evaporative cooling units, a low-cost alternative to traditional refrigerant-based air conditioning. But prison reform advocate Connie Edson said that as Florida experiences previously unheard-of temperatures, installing AC units in more prisons cannot await another legislative session.

Prisoners in Texas also endured oppressive conditions as temperatures soared. Living quarters in more than two-thirds of state prisons lack air conditioning, putting prisoners at risk of serious illness or death from excessive heat. Those held by the state Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) reported cell temperatures up to 149 degrees, conditions many called a “living hell.” In a desperate attempt at relief, prisoners resorted to pouring water on the concrete floor and sleeping in puddles to try to cool down.

Incredibly, TDCJ insists there has not been a heat-related prisoner death since 2012. However, experts say that the number of heat-related deaths in prisons nationwide is likely underreported, since it can be difficult to determine heat was a contributing factor in mortality.

The death of Kristie Williams’ brother, Tommy McCullough, is a case in point. Williams saw the exhaustion and discoloration in her brother’s face during their last video visit before he died while mowing grass at the Goree Unit in Huntsville on June 23, 2023. The 35-year-old asthmatic had told a fellow prisoner the night before that he was having trouble breathing and that prisoners were not getting enough water.

The Texas House of Representatives approved a bill to fund air conditioning in state prisons, but the state Senate rejected it. The state has an extra $32.7 billion in this year’s budget, but advocates fear lawmakers will not use it for AC, perversely preferring to continue paying settlements in wrongful death cases filed by prisoners’ survivors.

Far away from the problems in southern prisons, South Dakota manages its corrections infrastructure well, even though temperatures from June to September can top 90 degrees and summer humidity is a concern. In summer 2023, only one prisoner at Mike Durfee State Prison was treated for heat exhaustion, and that was after participating in outdoor recreation.

The prison, built from a former college campus, is one of the state’s few not completely air-conditioned. The state DOC notes that prisoners in units without AC have wall fans and hallway fans, and they are allowed to access other areas of the facility that are air conditioned. But in 2017 an extremely tall and obese prisoner filed a pro se civil rights lawsuit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, accusing officials with the state DOC of depriving him of life’s minimal necessities by their refusal to keep fans working or provide him an air-conditioned area where he could shelter from excessive heat. The federal court for the District of South Dakota said he could request a portable AC unit, though, and it dismissed his case on March 11, 2020. See: Brakeall v. Stanwick-Klemik, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 42319 (D.S.D.).

In February 2023, the state legislature approved $400 million for new prison construction, including air conditioning.  


Additional sources: Austin-American Statesman, KSFY/KDLT, Miami New Times, South Dakota Searchlight

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